Police / Fire

Hollister first-responders pull out all the stops for emergency disaster drill

Simulation, which had been planned for months, featured multiple responders from various local emergency services agencies

There were no lights and sirens, and the victims of a fire and explosion were wearing makeup and fake blood, but the incident on Gateway Drive near Tiffany Motors could have been deadly—if it had been real. And that was the whole idea of the emergency services drill as fire engines, ambulances, law enforcement and even a helicopter from CalStar Air Ambulance landed nearby.

“This is an MCI (multi casualty incident) drill that we planned in partnership with PG&E,” said Kris Mangano, emergency specialist at the Office of Emergency Services of San Benito County. “This is a surprise, unannounced drill to test the multiple casualty incident plan intended for our local fire, ambulance and law enforcement agencies. It’s to see how they work together as agencies and how the plan works and if changes have to be made.”

At 10:19 a.m., Aug. 5, the Santa Cruz Regional 911 center sent out the call to Hollister first responders that there was a fire and explosion at the PG&E substation.

“Only after they were actually dispatched to the scene were they told that it was a drill,” Mangano said.

As first responders pulled off San Felipe Road and rolled by Tiffany Motors, they would have found—if it had been an actual disaster—the PG&E substation on fire and damaged by an explosion, along with a backhoe operator who had been electrocuted, a number of Tiffany employees and customers, as well as workers on a nearby construction site, suffering from smoke inhalation.

But it was a drill and there was no explosion and all the victims were actor-volunteers. About 30 first responders and volunteers took part in the drill.

“People are simulating workers from Tiffany Motors who are coughing and have itchy, burning eyes from the smoke. Some have wounds and are wearing symptom tags that describe their injuries to the first responders,” Mangano said.

As the scenario unfolded, victims’ injuries were treated and they were loaded aboard waiting ambulances or the CalStar helicopter. None, though, were actually transported to nearby Hazel Hawkins Hospital.

Mangano said every effort was made to keep the impending drill a secret and acknowledged that some Hollister residents might be concerned, not realizing it was a drill, when they spotted emergency vehicles converging at the scene. To head off the curious, volunteers from the Hollister Fire Explorers and CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) cordoned off the road.

“We also have signs that we’ve made that says this is a drill, as well. If people approach the scene, the volunteers will let them know it’s a training drill,” Mangano said.

Mangano explained, though, there wasn’t much concern for any misunderstanding from residents.

“We conducted a similar drill last year at Veterans Park and because we had signs and volunteers letting people know what was happening, we didn’t have any issues,” she said. “We’re hoping we won’t again. If people put out on Facebook that something’s going on, well, something is going on, it’s a drill.”

Mangano said that there would be no additional cost for the drill because everyone involved was on duty.

At the conclusion of the drill, Hollister Fire Chief Bob Martin del Campo said he was very pleased how well it went off, with emergency units from Hollister and Gilroy coming together in a coordinated effort in what, if it had been a real situation would have been a major disaster.

“If a real call should happen it will take precedence over the training drill,” she said. “The drill will make due with whoever stays behind.”

Planning for the drill took three months.

“We did the planning at the Office of Emergency Services,” Magano said. “We met with fire, the police department, the sheriff’s department, the Red Cross, Hazel Hawkins Hospital, CalStar Air Ambulance, the coroner, and environmental health because of the smoke (even though there was not smoke). We have met with the heads or chiefs of each agency and department. They were aware of what we’re doing. They were aware, but their crews did not know.”

The following agencies and organizations participated in the exercise: Hollister Fire Department, Hollister Police Department, San Benito County Sheriff’s Department, AMR (American Medical Response), CalStar, Santa Cruz Regional 911 (SCR911), PG&E, California Highway Patrol, Hazel Hawkins Hospital, San Benito County Environmental Health, and the American Red Cross.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]